Five ways to help kids with autism make friends
Every parent wants their child to have friends.
Parents whose children don't make friends easily worry that their child will be lonely. This is especially true for parents whose kids have autism or other developmental challenges.
Children with autism usually want friends, but often don't recognize social cues. They have a hard time taking turns and sharing, so other children may initially avoid playing with them.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy can help kids with autism learn social skills they need to make friends. A scientific, proven therapy, ABA breaks tasks and behaviors into small pieces and practices each one until a child can use them in many places and situations.
Parents can help by working on social skills at home. Here are some ideas:
1. Learn to play. Many kids on the spectrum prefer solitary activities such as Legos, so they need to learn how to play with others.
Family games are a good way to teach this. Catch, tag, matching games, Pop the Pig and even watching TV together can help a child learn to make eye contact and take turns.
2. Learn to ask. Many friendships start when one child asks another to play. Role playing can help kids on the spectrum learn how.
Choose simple phrases such as "Want to play?" or "My turn, please," and enlist brothers, sisters and neighborhood kids to practice asking to play at home. It's also important to practice waiting for a response when a child asks someone to play.
Use lots of positive enforcement (a sticker or small toy, a hug or "good job!") every time the child gets any part of the phrase right or waits for a response.
Once your child can ask siblings and friends to play at home, take the exercise somewhere new, such as a neighbor's house or a playground. Once your child can ask others to play in various places, he's probably ready to ask an unfamiliar child and earn the ultimate reward: Running off to play with a new friend.
3. Learn to wait and take turns. Waiting in line to come down the slide or a play a game is hard for all young kids, but it can be especially difficult for children with autism.
Practice is the key to success. Start small, such as lining up for 30 seconds with siblings, cousins or neighborhood children to get a favorite toy.
Gradually increase the amount of lining-up time and the appeal of the reward until your child can wait for 3 to 5 minutes. The older the child, the longer they should be able to wait.
Then try lining up someplace new, such as a toy store, trampoline park or children's museum.
4. Learn to converse. Young children may build friendships without much conversation, but it's an important part of older children's friendships.
Parents can help kids with autism learn to ask questions such as, "What did you do this weekend?" or "Did your team win?" Giving a child a set of questions to use in social situations can help them feel more confident.
Family meals are a great time to work on conversation. Write lots of questions on pieces of paper and put them in a basket. Each night, have a family member pick a question for everyone at the table to ask and answer.
Provide encouragement every time your child responds to a question, asks a question or listens to the answer.
5. Learn in groups. Many ABA therapy providers offer social skills groups to help children with autism learn behaviors that help them make friends.
The sessions include individual therapy and small group activities such as playing games, eating snacks, waiting in line and so on. This is another opportunity for children on the spectrum to practice social skills in a new environment with new children.
Keep it fun, rewarding and realistic
Learning is always easier when it's fun. If your child likes blocks or videos, use them to practice social skills.
Praise your child for every success, no matter how small. Stickers, small toys, healthy treats and screen time are also great ways to reward progress toward a larger goal.
Be realistic about what social skills are age-appropriate. A 4-year-old probably wouldn't ask another child about a movie, but he would ask to play a game.
Children with autism and other sensory challenges may not make friends as easily as other kids, but support and practice can give them the tools they need to succeed. Parents who work on social skills at home can help their children enjoy one of life's greatest gifts -- friendship.
• Katie Taylor is a board-certified behavior analyst and manages Autism Home Support Services' Northbrook Autism Therapy Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.